Movie Curiosities: Creed III

I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the Creed series.

Granted, I still haven’t seen any Rocky movies past the first one — yes, I’ve heard that Rocky IV is a classic of the ’80s, I just haven’t gotten around to seeing it and I don’t feel especially motivated to do so. And yes, I’ve been doing this for long enough that I’m jaded past the point of getting too emotionally attached to any particular franchise or character. (Never mind getting overly hyped for an upcoming film, I’ve gotten burned too badly too many times.) And it’s not that Creed or Creed 2 were bad movies — I remember them and I distinctly remember how good they were, but I don’t remember any particulars about either film and I’ve never felt any urge to revisit them even with the third film coming up.

It could be a factor that I’ve never been a fan of Sly Stallone, especially as he got older. I get the appeal of his corny ’80s action hero prime, but it’s not my thing. I should add that Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan are always a winning combination (Hell, Jordan’s cameo was literally the only good joke in the Coogler-produced Space Jam: A New Legacy) and they’ve proven spectacularly capable at picking up the torch, so that’s not the problem.

No, I think the big problem here is in how predictable every movie is. You’ve got your highs, you’ve got your lows, you’ve got your training montage, and then you’ve got the big fight at the end. Nothing is truly resolved until the fight at the end, and it’s more likely than not that our lead character is going to win at the end. You could set your clock to it. Remember when Rocky lost at the end of the first movie? I don’t know if that ever happened again at any time since, but I’m starting to lose faith that the filmmakers will ever find a way to let Adonis Creed lose the title match at the end. Or indeed, find some other way of ending a film.

Of course, this franchise is all about the underdog story, and it’s totally understandable that everyone wants to see the good-hearted underdog emerge victorious. I’m just saying, we’ve now had nine of these movies over nearly fifty years. Hell, just the most recent three movies over the past eight years are starting to blur together. It is what it is.

That said, Creed III came with some intriguing new wrinkles. First off, the film was directed by none other than Michael B. Jordan himself, here making his directorial debut while also starring and producing. Second, Ryan Coogler came back with a story credit, sharing writing credits with his brother Keenan and King Richard screenwriter Zach Baylin. Last and certainly not least, while Sylvester Stallone was obligingly given a producer credit, he had no actual involvement with this movie whatsoever due to creative disagreements and a long-running feud with franchise producer Irwin Winkler. Which means after two films that made a huge freaking deal out of carrying Rocky’s legacy, the characters and the filmmakers will have to find a way forward without even so much as a cameo from the OG franchise centerpiece.

The plot begins with Adonis “Donny” Creed (Jordan) in the middle of a high-profile rematch against “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, complete with Tony Bellew reprising his role from the first movie. This rematch made international news because it’s Conlan’s first fight after getting out of prison and Donny made a big deal out of retiring after this match so he’d damn well better go out a winner. And suddenly, I’m wondering why THIS wasn’t the premise and climax for the third movie. Whatever.

Cut to three years later. Donny is now running his own gym alongside his old trainer (“Little Duke”, played once again by Wood Harris) and nurturing the next generation of up-and-coming boxers. Donny’s most prized protege is currently Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez Jr., an actual pro boxer), though Donny has also maintained a friendly professional rivalry with the still-up-and-coming Viktor Drago (yes, Florian Munteanu came back as well).

As for Adonis’ wife (Bianca, played once again by Tessa Thompson), she’s now a massively successful music producer with multiple gold records to her name. I might add that she did very well for herself as a singer in her own right, but stepped away from that for fear of making her hearing loss any worse than it already was.

To sum up, Donny and Bianca both got to the pinnacle of their respective worlds and chose to go out on top while they still had their youth and health. And they both came to be wealthy enough that they’re living in a swank-ass LA mansion, raising their hearing-impaired daughter (Amara Creed, played by newcomer Mila Davis-Kent) with everything she could ever want or need. Trouble is, Amara has apparently taken a little too much after her dad and she’s taken to beating up kids who bully her.

(Side note: I looked it up and yes, Davis-Kent is indeed actually deaf.)

Bianca naturally responds to this with the belief that Amara needs to learn healthier and more constructive means of resolving differences and dealing with her emotions. By contrast, Donny thinks that Amara needs to learn how to fight so she can better stand up for herself. But of course this isn’t really about Amara. No, this is about how Adonis is so terrible at coping with his demons and talking about his problems, especially now that he doesn’t have professional boxing as an outlet anymore.

The whole film is very much about Donny learning how to seek and to grant forgiveness for himself and others as he gathers up the courage to sort out the skeletons in his closet. And the movie never thinks to frame this as a lesson Donny teaches his daughter. Adonis and Amara get some truly adorable scenes together (the tea party is an early highlight), but the subplot is sadly left unresolved.

Yes, the characters have to talk exclusively in sign language because Amara’s deaf, but don’t tell me that’s any kind of obstacle for delivering a deep dramatic dialogue. Even with the subtitled sign language, Jordan and Davis-Kent still work beautifully together. And anyway, did you see Drive My Car? No? Well, get on that shit!

But I digress. And anyway, of course the film doesn’t have time to spare for Donny and his daughter because the film is about a very different relationship.

“Diamond” Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors) was an amateur boxing champion and a close brotherly friend to Donny back when they were kids. Damian was going to be the world champion and Donny was supposed to be the one in his corner carrying his gloves. But then Damian got arrested and spent 18 years behind bars. It’s a long story I won’t get into here, but suffice to say Donny started a fight, Damian escalated it, and things spiraled out of control from there.

The important thing is that Damian is out of prison, he wants his lifelong dream, and he wants it NOW. In his mind, those 18 years’ imprisonment wasn’t about him paying off his debt to society — quite the opposite. Damian spent half his life in prison, training and keeping in shape and studying to be a boxer the whole time he was keeping his head down and his nose clean, and now it’s society that owes him. More specifically, Adonis was the brother-in-arms who swore he’d always be in Damian’s corner, Damian lost half his life standing up for Adonis, and Damian had to watch Adonis get the life Damian was supposed to have without ever acknowledging that Damian even existed. So yeah, Damian thinks that Adonis owes him big-time, and he’ll stop at nothing until he gets whatever he thinks he’s owed.

Let’s sum up.

  • Damian is a living, breathing reminder of the checkered past Adonis has spent his entire life trying to move past.
  • Damian is perpetually angry, lashing out in ways that cause direct and terrible harm to everyone around him, which highlights Damian’s own problems at dealing with past traumas.
  • Damian thinks that he deserves everything Adonis got, calling into question whether it was Adonis who deserved to get locked up and whether Adonis really earned everything he has.
  • Damian is a few years older than Adonis, which calls attention to Adonis’ own advancing age and the question of how much longer he’ll have the opportunity to do this professionally.
  • Damian is raw destructive power with no self-control whatsoever, while Adonis says umpteen times in this picture how focus and observation and control are what it takes to really win.

In summary, Damian was a character explicitly and meticulously constructed to be a dark mirror for Adonis. It certainly helps that he’s portrayed by such a dynamic powerhouse actor as Jonathan Majors, who matches Jordan pound for pound in every scene. And remember, this is Jordan’s third movie playing a character he knows inside and out, AND he’s the director. It’s a testament to Majors’ talent and screen presence that he’s more than holding his own against all of that.

We’ve got a perfectly balanced conflict between two characters developed and portrayed to push each other to their utmost physical, mental, emotional, spiritual limits. It’s compelling to watch, it beautifully conveys and explores the themes of the film, and it makes for some damn entertaining fight scenes.

I’ve heard that Jordan grew up as a huge anime fan, and I can definitely see some of that influence in the boxing scenes. Not that there were any speed lines or anything, but there were more than a few spellbinding shots of slo-mo and speed-ramping and extreme close-ups that made me think “Holy shit, this looks like something right out of a manga.” The filmmakers were not afraid to cut loose with the boxing scenes, delivering moments of heightened spectacle that would’ve looked out of place anywhere else in the narrative.

Easily the most prominent example comes at the climax, which looks like more of a dream sequence. I don’t care. It looks awesome, it beautifully conveys the themes of the film, it illustrates the headspace of the characters in a dazzling way, and it’s better than another freaking montage to speed us past ten rounds of boxing.

Overall, Creed III is a solid bit of popcorn cinema. It’s the kind of movie you can watch for a nicely enjoyable two hours and forget about immediately after, and that’s perfectly fine by the standards of this franchise. It’s not exactly anything new or groundbreaking, but we can only get so much of that from the ninth entry in a series. Though it’s certainly a big deal that the franchise can now provably sustain itself without Sylvester Stallone or Rocky involved. And I’m excited to see what’s next for Michael B. Jordan now that he’s demonstrably capable of directing a stylish and finely crafted movie while coaxing great performances out of himself and his supporting cast.

The bottom line is that if you’re a fan of the series and you’re a fan of the wonderful talents involved, you won’t come away from this disappointed. Check it out.

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